CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Last season the Rays earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first team since the 1945 Washington Senators to lead the American League in ERA (3.19) and finish last in fielding (114 errors). Making that fact tougher to swallow was the fact the Rays finished first in the AL in fielding in 2011.
Rays manager Joe Maddon believes much of the problem had to do with losing Gold Glove third baseman Evan Longoria for 85 games.
"The argument was made that we were moving people to different spots and that's something we always do and we've done successfully without guys making mistakes," Maddon said. "Last year, once Longo was out, we started doing what we thought would be normal and OK, but it didn't work out that way. Guys had difficult defensive years. Had Longo been [at third base], guys would not have been stretched to play there as often as they did.
"And I just think maybe the thought of having to cover for him for so long really was difficult. Everyday players are everyday players for a reason. And guys who are backup players, there's a reason for that also. The everyday player has a unique ability both physically and mentally to handle the grind on a daily basis and is probably better able to handle failure better. I think that's the real key."
Typical of Maddon, he found a silver lining in relation to the Rays' fielding.
"Moving forward, hopefully the same situation doesn't occur," Maddon said. "But if it did occur, hopefully we're covered depth-wise to where we can fill those spots in a better defensive way than we did last year."
Maddon believes this year's team has the potential to be the best fielding Rays team since his arrival prior to the 2006 season.
"I think it can be the [best] ever with good health," said Maddon, noting that such a compliment was high praise based on the high bar the 2008 club set with standout defenders Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena. "That was pretty good. And this is right there with the guys that are out there right now. If we keep them on the field you're going to see some fantastic defense out there this year."
Jennings leaves game with mild ankle sprain
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Desmond Jennings left Saturday's game against the Phillies due to a mild sprain of his left ankle.
Jennings singled to left in the top of the third and went to second on left fielder Domonic Brown's error. He injured his ankle while pulling into second.
According to the Rays, the center fielder is day to day.
"Desmond's fine," manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "He could have continued to play. I saw him at second, he kind of hit the bag a little bit funny, so I did not want to take any chances. I had [outfield coach/bench coach] Davey [Martinez] talk to him, he put some ice on it, he's going to be fine."
Maddon doesn't think Jennings is likely to miss much time, if any at all. Even before the injury, Jennings wasn't scheduled to play on Sunday.
Jennings, 26, is projected to be the Rays' starting center fielder this season after serving as the team's left fielder in 2012.
Maddon excited about team's play
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Approaching the halfway point of Spring Training, Rays manager Joe Maddon said he likes what he has seen from his team "a lot."
"A lot of it has to do with the group in general," Maddon said. "Their work has been spectacular. That part's been really fun from a coaching perspective. And the way we're playing, they're playing, the depth of this club, it's a good group to be around. I think if a couple of things were to break down, there are a lot of [other players] who can step in and do the appropriate job. So it's exciting."
The Rays have a winning record, but Maddon noted that's not the main thing shaping his perspective.
"We've played well," Maddon said. "But the way they're going about their business, it's really exciting from a manager's perspective. … Theoretically about as good as it can get at a Spring Training camp."
Last rotation spot still up for grabs
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The No. 5 spot in the Rays' rotation is still in question. The candidates are Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi.
Of that group, Niemann and Hernandez remain the favorites. Niemann was sharp on Saturday, allowing only one run with three strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings. The lone run came on Ryan Howard's fourth home run of the spring.
"It's such a great problem to have, all these great people to choose from," manager Joe Maddon said.
Last year's competition for the final spot came down to Wade Davis and Niemann, who won that competition. One of the considerations for selecting Niemann was that the Rays felt Davis could adjust to the bullpen more easily than Niemann.
Maddon said he didn't know if the loser being able to adapt to the bullpen will be a consideration.
"Sometimes it could be, but I don't know that it will be this time," Maddon said. "I just want to get the guys who we perceive to be the right guys out there to begin the season with. … Our concern is probably not who is better suited for the bullpen."
Maddon also took a moment to toot Archer's horn. The right-hander has been impressive this spring.
"Archie, really, he wants to be here, man," Maddon said. "He's throwing the ball extremely well."
Could Archer end up becoming a candidate for the bullpen if he doesn't claim the No. 5 spot?
"Sometimes you can make the argument that it's good to bring a young guy up and stick him in the bullpen to get his feet wet and eventually bring him into the rotation," Maddon said. "With a guy like Archie, my perception is he's the kind of guy who can use the work if he's not playing on a regular basis. Because there's going to be a breakdown at some point and he could come up stretched out if you have a need in the rotation and really fill that well. You don't want to mess with his developmental path."
Maddon allowed that, with Archer's talents, he could become a top-of-the-rotation starter.
"He has the stuff to do that," Maddon said. "It also matters your heartbeat, your pulse, how you react to negativity at that moment. But yeah, his stuff can play at a very high level. It does."
• Chris Gimenez is having a torrid spring. The Rays' catching hopeful went 2-for-3 on Friday to push his average to a team-leading .526.
• Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. will be at Charlotte Sports Park on Sunday to promote his new children's book, "Wild Pitch." Ripken is slated to throw out the first pitch for the Red Sox-Rays tilt and he will do a book signing for fans from 2:30-4:30 p.m. Fans will be able to purchase his book at the ballpark.
• The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band formed in 1980 out of New Jersey, will perform pregame Sunday and Monday at Charlotte Sports Park. The performances will be free. Willie Forte (vocals/keyboard) is a childhood friend of Maddon.
• On March 23 following the Rays-Twins game at Charlotte Sports Park, fans will be able to join Rays players and broadcasters at a luau to benefit the following local community partners: Charlotte County Family YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast, Charlotte County Habitat for Humanity and Charlotte County Homeless Coalition. Tickets can be purchased at the Charlotte Sports Park box office or at raysbaseball.com/luau
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.